Determined to shine on my first day as an NYU journalism adjunct, I over- prepared like crazy. Mostly I fretted that my lesson might not fill 3.75 hours, so I searched for activities to tack on if needed.
I came up with a quickie fieldtrip, inspired by a flyer soliciting articles for our department’s erstwhile publication “Manhattan South.” The theme of the upcoming issue: “DOWNTOWN: Nerve Center of the Universe.”
My father’s business had been on Nassau Street; I’d roved “downtown” through decades of change. I figured I’d shepherd my nascent reporters around the area (wouldn’t they relish an outing on such a gorgeous day!) and steer them towards pitch-worthy stories.
Except it never happened.
Class never happened.
My gorgeous first day was 9/11/01.
Somewhat irrationally, I kept fixating on what-ifs. The towers, of course, would’ve figured prominently on my mini-tour. What if it’d been a morning class? What if the attacks had occurred in the afternoon?
The responsibilities of teaching, mentoring, role-modeling and in-loco-parentis-ing were engraved upon my heart long before that day. I’d once been a contrarian teen, an “underachiever” who thrived only when a rare teacher sensed I loved learning and might have something to say. As a grad assistant, I was guided by my students’ hunger for scrupulous feedback and individualized attention. Then, as an author/public speaker and religious-school instructor, I trained myself to communicate (and listen) unflinchingly on tough issues—genocide, bigotry, morality, sexuality, diversity, social justice—eschewing personal agendas, upholding nuance, infusing humor. Plus I was a mother whose child had triumphed over dyslexia thanks to expert pedagogy.
These experiences underwrote whatever “teaching philosophy” I carried into my classroom one week after 9/11, with the air still acrid over Washington Square. It was Rosh Hashanah and I walked to campus after synagogue services uptown, believing that teaching, under the circumstances, was the highest, holiest act one could perform. Sure enough, 15 beseeching young faces brought to mind an epigram tacked-up in my home- office: “To the world you may be one person; to one person you may be the world.”
Through 30-plus semesters, I’ve remembered this.
The complex challenges of teaching journalism (of all disciplines) here (of all places) at the dawn of the 21st Century have made my job both a calling and a wild ride. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I never forget that a free and responsible press is the underpinning of democratic societies, and that all humans are fellow travelers on the same vulnerable ship, in the same turbulent sea. I’m probably proudest of fostering an inclusive, collaborative classroom culture (particularly through a Beat course I created, “Hyphenated NY”) in which our highly diverse students can develop a cache of indispensable skills: thinking/speaking/pitching/writing/researching/interviewing/ reporting/reviewing/embedding/investigating/analyzing/blogging/tweeting/ polling/posting/photographing/recording/filming/editing/editorializing (and killing run-on sentences)—proficiently, accurately, respectfully across cultures and with the highest professional ethics...whether they’re covering war or the White House, biotech or Beyoncé.
Many of the media platforms and technologies our current students must master didn’t exist when I began teaching. Yet at the core of these endeavors remains something immutable, no batteries required: good (occasionally great) writing, conveying information that will serve the public. To set the tone I launch each semester with a quote from Margaret Mead (“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has”), and a meditation on slain journalist Daniel Pearl, for whom (wrote Pearl’s widow, Mariane) writing was a way “to expose injustice, corruption and ignorance...question vested interests, fundamentalism and untruths.”
I’m heartened that today’s rampant cynicism about the industry has left so many of my aspiring journos undaunted. They’re far too smart and dedicated to be deterred from becoming erudite chroniclers and influencers, telling impactful stories—as one student wrote in a thank-you note—“full of ‘flava’ and heart.”
Especially in these beleaguered times, there’s nothing sweeter than devouring a top-shelf piece of journalism, only to glance back at the author’s name and realize: WOW! That’s one of MINE.
I’ll forever be grateful for this inestimable privilege.